The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

History, the Self, & America Now

Dear Unknown Friends:

The great lecture by Eli Siegel that we have been serializing—of November 15, 1974—is about the relation between what goes on in the individual self, the mind of each of us, and large happenings in the world. We’ve reached the final section. And what Mr. Siegel explains in it is a means of understanding what’s happening in America right now.

Earlier in the talk he commented on passages from a sociology textbook, including a section on revolution. And in this final section he continues speaking about what revolution is. It may not include such dramatic occurrences as the storming of the Bastille or Winter Palace. Revolution, Mr. Siegel explains, has subtlety, nuance; and it can be a process.

Beginning in 1970, he showed that a revolution was taking place in America, toward having this nation be owned justly. It would go on for some decades, is going on right now. Often it has looked like anything but revolution. However, Mr. Siegel explained, an unjust way of economics, the profit system, has failed and will never recover, and one large reason is that people are deeply against it, and against it with increasing consciousness and intensity. While people may seem to go along with the profit way, they hate being seen and used in terms of how much money their life and labor can supply to some boss or stockholders. “The profit system of America,” Mr. Siegel said, “is trying to go on while individual psychology in America is now against the profit system.” That is a description of revolution.

The idea of revolution as having subtlety, dignity, was present this year in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. He said America needed a revolution, and he used the word to mean a big, nonviolent change in behalf of justice. The fact that people were not horrified at the word, but welcomed it, and were also not horrified by his calling himself a democratic socialist, is part of the revolution itself.

The Large Question

Aesthetic Realism explains that the large question of every individual person is also the national question, economic question: Can a person—can I—take care of just me, be important and glorious, and also be fair to the people and things outside myself? Aesthetic Realism says that this is an aesthetic question: it is a question about making opposites one, and is answered in all good art. Every true artist in any field, of any land or time, became an Individual, was expressed, glorious, even immortal, through trying to be just to the outside world—of sounds, shapes, objects, human beings, happenings, motion, time, words, color, and more.

Our treasured particular self and the world not ourselves are the biggest opposites in everyone’s life. And, Aesthetic Realism shows, there is a false way of seeing in everyone which makes us feel the two have to fight. This way of seeing is contempt: the terrific sense that we’ll get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

Contempt is, for instance, in a wife who feels her husband needs to be managed by her; and who sees him not as a human being, as real as she is, related to ever so much reality outside of her—but sees him largely in terms of whether he makes her important and behaves as she wishes him to behave. Contempt is ever so domestic and intimate. But contempt is also the cause of racism, in all its horrors—because contempt is the feeling that the way to take care of self, to be Somebody, is to lessen what’s different. Everything ugly in history has come from contempt. And one of those ugly things is economics based on using one’s fellow humans for personal profit.

Mr. Siegel showed in the 1970s that reality-as-history has reached the point at which economics will succeed only if it is based on good will: on an honest answer to the question “What does a person deserve by being alive?” That basis is ethics. And the revolution today is that millions of people, though not fully articulating it, feel with increasing intensity that an economy based on ethics “is good for me!”

The Change That Is Insisting

The lecture we’ve been serializing was given ten days after the 1974 midterm elections. Aesthetic Realism is not political; it is about aesthetics and ethics. And so, as Mr. Siegel speaks here about one of the major political parties, he does so because there was a push toward change within it that was part of the ethical change he saw as insisting in the world.

In this final section, Mr. Siegel asks many questions. They are the questions for America now. And there is a beautiful phrase I want to point to. He says about certain words he used in relation to economics—such words as respect, ill will, kindness: “They will be seen as sleepers in terms of the history of man.” That is a beautiful phrase, musical and true. A sleeper is something seen as not mattering much, which then comes to be seen as having might, great importance. Eli Siegel is the philosopher, economist, historian who showed, with rich documentation, that “ethics is a force, like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way.” That is the revolution taking place—amid, of course, much effort to stop it. As it goes on, the seeing of Aesthetic Realism truly, as the needed, beautiful friend to humanity, will go on too.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


History: A Study of Mind

By Eli Siegel

There was in yesterday’s New York Times an article that doesn’t seem to be about revolution at all, and yet in the large sense it is. The headline is “House Reformers Seek More Power; Mills and Albert Are Targets of Liberal Democrats.”

At the time of George Washington’s two administrations, there was one party. Then, the fact that John Adams or Alexander Hamilton opposed Jefferson made for the existence of two parties: the Federalists (of Adams and Hamilton) and the Republicans. [Note. The Republicans of then were sometimes called Democrats or Democratic-Republicans. They have been seen as the predecessors of today’s Democrats.] Now, these represent something. Their meaning is still going on, even with the recent election.

In order to understand the full meaning of the Democratic Party as it is now, one has to see what it meant right from the beginning. There was a feeling when Jefferson talked that he cared somewhat more for the people of the states than John Adams did. Jefferson’s Inaugural Address is not exactly breathing of leftism, but there is a feeling in Jefferson. There are many remarks of his, and what they come to is somewhat different from the viewpoint of a Federalist. The two parties, as today, are mixed up; they can be hard to distinguish. But roughly, a Democrat at that time was saying that if you see something in the masses of Americans, in the American you may meet on the farm or in a shop, and respect that, you’re being good to yourself. Hamilton would say: if you meet somebody on the farm or in a shop and you feel that he needs your counsel and your help and you should manage him, you’ll be good to yourself. There’s a difference. The Democrats had something with more respect in it. Then it became confused in 1829 with the advent of the first president who called himself a Democrat, Andrew Jackson. But we have this matter, and it’s still going on because within the Democratic Party there are two ways of seeing people. We have Bella Abzug in the same party with Wilbur Mills.

What I’m saying is this: history is a wonderful place to study what can happen to minds, how a psychology can be different—to study the continuity and surprises of psychology. —The Times article begins:

Reform-minded Democratic Representatives are seeking to increase their power at the expense of their leaders in a bid to make the House more responsible to the will of newer and more liberal members.

Everybody who has ever lived has wanted to make the world a little better. When you want to make the world a little better, you are in a position to be called a reformer. How you are going to make it better is something else. Both La Follette and Savonarola were reformers. And Dante saw himself as a reformer. In fact, the purpose of his Divina Commedia was to reform Italy and the whole world of the time.

So, how strong is the desire to reform? What does it come from? Does the relation of the words conservative and reform have something to do with rest and motion? What does it mean to be a liberal?

The reformers, including many members of the House Democratic Study Group, accuse Mr. Mills of bottling up for years legislation they view as urgently needed.

There is a group of Democrats who are more left than the others, and they call themselves the House Democratic Study Group. That is interesting. It happens that the radicalism of some years ago is somewhat in abeyance now. It’s quiet. And what was the state of mind of what can be called the campus Bakunin?

The Public Interest

A question to ask is: Is there anybody now in America who really wants the plight of the American people to be better, who really is a patriot and wants the existence of Americans to be more to their liking? What does it mean to have the public interest at heart? Why do some people have the public interest at heart? After all, you can privately have the public interest at heart. What does it mean?

One kind of revolution possible now in a certain field is this: It’s possible that the Democratic Party really have the interest of the American people at heart and not just be a political organization. It’s possible, of course, that a Republican can have that. But the trend of the Democratic Party has been more to think that the people of America should be given more thought, simultaneously with more power, and thirdly, with more wealth.

The people who are going to come to Congress in January are all uncertain. Some of them don’t know what they’re after. There will be many statements. So everyone should ask about oneself: How much do I want to reform the world? Am I interested at all? Or, when I say I want the world to be better, what am I saying?—that I just want to feel better myself?

Discussions by reformers of what actions to take started here two days after the general elections.

They do not know, but the impulse toward reform is very much in politics. Either you’re going to go into politics to fight for your dear self, advance and enhance that, or you’re really going to have your constituents at heart or in your mind.

The History of a Party

The history of the Democratic Party could be written, and it would be one of the most interesting works going. How did the party of Jackson, not only of 1829 but of 1825, become the party of Jefferson Davis, or the slavery party, and what was there then of the strict Democratic Party? Why was Walt Whitman a Democrat in his early days? And what happened to the Democratic Party with each decade, with each election? What was it like in 1896, with William Jennings Bryan? And what was it with Mr. Wilson in 1912?

The following moves are already being discussed:

—To take from the Ways and Means Committee its power to appoint Democratic members to other committees and place it in the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

For a long time, the Ways and Means Committee has been the refuge of mean old men who’ve thought only of themselves and their ailments.

—To increase the size of the Ways and Means Committee from 25 members to 30 or more, thus opening up seats that would be given to younger and more liberal Democrats.

—With increased leverage in the Ways and Means Committee, to push through significant legislation on tax reform, health insurance and unemployment compensation.

How You See People

There have been ever so many phrases and ever so many movements that show an interest of a good kind in people. Every one of the slogans in American history could be looked at for what kind of mind it begins with. The most notable of the slogans is “No taxation without representation.” That, looked at, is obviously for respect for people. And this article says there’s going to be “legislation on tax reform.” There’s a lot of feeling that some of the most taxable people are not taxed. How you see taxation has to do with how you see people.

Then, “health insurance.” That will be a large matter. As soon as you begin to be interested in people’s health with respect, you are taking a certain stand as to the world itself. And “unemployment compensation”: that too. Again, what do you begin with when you have an attitude about these? The word I just used, respect—and ill will and kindness—these words will be studied more. They will be seen as sleepers in terms of the history of man.

Reformers and others in the House have complained that Mr. Mills has stalled such legislation too long—in the case of national health insurance, for four years.

A revolution is going on. But just from reading this article with its dull sentences, you would think that nothing of the kind is going on. All that you’d see would be: the Democratic Party once more is scratching itself.

A topic in the second part of this talk is: What is revolution? Where can it take place? What’s a distinguishing thing in it? A phrase that stirred historians a great deal was Charles Beard’s phrase, which he later used in The Rise of American Civilization: he called the Civil War the “Second American Revolution.” What revolutions have occurred in the world? It’s very easy to see that the leader of the French Revolution, Robespierre, is so different from Washington. You couldn’t have Robespierre on a postage stamp very well. There is a difference. And one can see that the French Revolution was a series of sub-revolutions.

The Personal & the General

In all politics there’s some attempt to make the personal self also the general self. The need for that is in the phrase Oliver Goldsmith used in criticizing Edmund Burke and his relation to a political party: “And to party gave up what was meant for mankind.” What the left Democrats are saying is this: We can try to satisfy the needs and hopes of the American people in terms of employment, in terms of health insurance, in terms of taxes, in terms of guaranteed income, in terms of peace and war, and we can still be ourselves.

Reformers have said privately that Representatives chosen to serve on the Ways and Means Committee all too often are content to go along with the will of the chairman and the Democratic leadership, rather than that of the Representatives in general.

How much is one going to represent the people? A demagogue is one who is always talking about the people. But it’s possible really to be interested in them. And when will a “demagogue” become the real thing?—that is, demagogue in the Greek means one who leads the people.

There is the word Representative. When you are a Representative you say that you’re not going to represent only yourself. When you swear that you’ll abide by the Constitution and serve America as well as you can, you’re saying that you won’t represent just yourself.

In politics there are two ways of being false to oneself, or selling oneself out. They go along with the other selling out: not caring enough to see what is true. One way is to be a party hack: to do what you’re told, and to go along with the ways that made the party be successful so far or had it get things. The other way is to think only of yourself. You are either too conventional or too acquisitive. If there is a representation of yourself and also your constituency, that will be a revolution. In his autobiography, Davy Crockett talks of how, in being a Congressman, he wanted to represent the people. He was a strange Congressman, but he was a Congressman.

In January, the House will seat 75 new Democratic members...who are younger and more liberal than those they are replacing....Several Democratic reformers—

A question is: What are they going to reform? And how much do they mean it? Everyone should ask: I like to eat good food, but do I like reform? How much am I really for it? What am I going to try to reform?

Well, it promises to be an interesting Congress. Reform will be helped by the most revolutionary thing in the world: reality when it’s ready. That’s the most revolutionary thing in the world: R when R. And reality is ready.

When the Democrats gained 38 seats in the House in the 1964 elections, Mr. Mills changed his position the following January and Medicare was reported out by his committee and enacted in 1965.

This interest of all people in the health and welfare of one person is a revolution.

If a Change Is Big Enough

“Mr. Mills is a very flexible man who can count as well as anyone,” one reformer said today. “It’s possible he will move faster than expected in getting the tax, health and unemployment bills out of committee.”

Flexibility become full circle is a revolution.

If a change is big enough, it’s a revolution.